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Chamber pushes ‘all of the above’ regional mobility solution

Tuesday, October 8, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Austin Chamber of Commerce pushed three desired outcomes at this year’s mobility summit: resolving traffic congestion on Interstate 35; passing the city’s first high-capacity transit bond; and clarifying the positions and goals of regional elected officials.

To fix I-35, Brian Cassidy, chair of the chamber’s board of directors, said the region knows what it needs: “Two variable-tolled managed lanes in each direction from (State Highway 45 North) to (SH 45 South); that will improve traffic, it will improve transit, it will improve the flow of commerce to our region, and it will provide a tool to enable us to fund that $8 billion challenge.”

The Texas Department of Transportation, however, has committed itself to its own solution, the Capital Express program, for the region’s portion of I-35. While the plan includes new managed lanes in both directions, Tucker Ferguson of TxDOT’s Austin District said the current idea is to avoid tolls. Managed lanes, he explained, could instead be used to restrict access based on vehicle type, occupancy or specific functions like public transportation. But Texas, he said, is presently a non-toll environment.

State Sen. Kirk Watson pushed back against Ferguson’s position on tolls. A “non-toll environment,” he said, is a feature of politics, not of engineering.

“Those in control at the Capitol continue to promise more transportation fixes with no new tolls, no new taxes, no new fees, and no new debt,” Watson said. “Well, folks, that means no new roads, because we don’t have enough money.

“The research and the experience has shown that simply building new lanes will not reduce congestion; we need to change behavior, and tolled managed lanes do that effectively,” Watson said.

State funding in the Unified Transportation Program has already been dedicated to both the north and south segments of the Capital Express project, but a roughly $4.5 billion gap remains to address the central portion between U.S. Highway 290 East and SH 71, or Ben White Boulevard. The central segment, Ferguson said, is by far the most expensive, mostly due to right-of-way constraints forcing pieces of the project down below surface level.

Watson urged the community to push for dynamic congestion pricing as a means both to fund and fix that central portion. “If the bottleneck through Central Austin isn’t addressed,” he said, “we will have spent well over a billion dollars simply to get people to the bottleneck faster.”

Ferguson said the public can get involved with the Capital Express project beginning next week, by attending one of two open house community meetings. A meeting on the south segment will take place Oct. 17 at Akins High School and another for the north segment on Oct. 24 at John B. Connally High School. “This is the time to get the public input for these projects,” he said.

Noting that many Texans have been “trained” to have an anti-transit bias, Watson emphasized that expanding our region’s major roadways doesn’t have to be the only solution to traffic problems.

Transit and roadway expansion can be complementary, Watson said, “if we’re smart and thoughtful and work collaboratively.”

As far as moving people efficiently, Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority CEO Randy Clarke said public transit has an enormous advantage. A full bus, he said, can remove more than 100 cars from city streets, cutting traffic and reducing emissions.

The city’s first two electric buses are arriving this winter, which Clarke said is part of a long-term electrification plan. “I’ll be the first, I guess, to mention up here today: We’ve got to start facing the reality of climate change,” he said, adding that electric buses can be a major part of a climate crisis mitigation plan.

Like Watson and Mayor Steve Adler, Clarke also championed the region’s need for dedicated transitways, particularly in the form of Capital Metro’s high-capacity network vision, Project Connect. A single quarter-mile dedicated transit lane has already saved buses up to 12 minutes during peak evening hours, Clarke said, referring to the city’s contraflow project at Guadalupe Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

“Think of what we could do if we had dedicated right of way from Tech Ridge to (Slaughter Lane) on (Project Connect’s) Orange Line,” Clarke said.

While optimistic about potential transit use, Clarke was realistic about the region’s development patterns, which Mike Heiligenstein, executive director of the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, said will continue to concentrate outside of the region’s urban center.

“Of the next million people that move to our region,” Heiligenstein said, “985,000 will live outside of the Austin core. Think about it, get your arms around it that Hutto has four times more people than downtown Austin.”

Praising the positive ridership trends the agency has seen since launching its on-demand service, Pickup, in five lower-density locations outside of its transit network, Clarke said the future of transit is in connecting the region’s more remote zones with high-capacity lines.

Adler, having recently traveled to similar regions across the nation, agreed that transit is glaringly missing from Central Texas. “On the same page that we passed that massive $720 million transportation bond in 2016, Seattle voters were going to the polls and passed a $57 billion regional mobility plan; the voters in Phoenix went to the polls and passed a $26 billion regional transportation plan – so we need to do better.”

“I’m excited that we’re going to get, at the end of this month, the laying out of data that will enable our community between October and March to fashion what regional mass public transit needs to look like in our city so we can put it on the ballot in November 2020,” he added.

Project Connect will be the subject of a joint work session with City Council and Capital Metro at the end of the month, followed by the next phase of open house meetings beginning the first week of November.

Photo by Wil C. Fly made available through a Creative Commons license.

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